Gridlock over legislative agenda

September 26, 2021

Islamabad : Two bipartisan parliamentary panels formed by Speaker Asad Qaiser to evolve a consensus on legislative business, including the controversial electoral reforms, have proved to be utterly...

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Islamabad : Two bipartisan parliamentary panels formed by Speaker Asad Qaiser to evolve a consensus on legislative business, including the controversial electoral reforms, have proved to be utterly useless as they have not been convened even once to take up their assignments.

While these existing forums are dysfunctional, the speaker announced the formation of yet another similar committee on Tuesday for the same purpose.

A long time ago, the speaker had established the 32-member Parliamentary Consultation Committee on Legislative Business (PCCLB) for the specific purpose of lawmaking.

After the government bulldozed 29 bills, including the electoral reforms package in the National Assembly on June 7 and 10 amid strong opposition protest, the speaker had created the 20-member Parliamentary Committee on Legislative Business (PCLB) to sort out differences on all the proposed legislation with the objective of subsequently passing them after incorporating the amendments of the opposition.

The PCCLB is headed by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak while the PCLB is led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Neither have the bodies themselves nor the speaker has ever attempted to call these bodies to take into consideration the bills.

Not only has no effort been made to bring the two sides face to face in these forums, no endeavour has been initiated to do the same in the Senate standing committee on parliamentary affairs which deliberated upon the electoral reform bills and rejected them with a majority, defeating the government move to take the proposed legislation to the Upper House of Parliament.

In the past, offstage efforts were always made to hammer out a consensus on contentious bills prior to taking them before the formal committees. Every side now struggles to frustrate the other on the force of their majority in the Senate standing committee.

Since the PCCLB and PCLB have been constituted by the speaker with the consent of the government and opposition parties, he, in consultations with them, was required to summon either or both of them to break the logjam particularly on the 75 amendments in the Elections Act, 2017. While the opposition has often showered criticism on the speaker’s conduct and has been opposing any role to be played by him, Asad Qaiser has tried to assuage its feelings.

Offers for dialogue on the proposed electoral reforms have been made by the government umpteen times only through public statements to give the impression that the opposition parties would jump at the chance and seize the opportunity. Never has the ruling alliance made any serious offer for talks on the legislative agenda.

The latest offer for parleys has again been given to the opposition at a presser by Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan instead of formally or informally talking to it to initiate the dialogue process to break the stalemate. The fresh move is unlikely to meet a fate different from the previous gimmicks.

Apparently, the new offer has been made to justify the subsequent approval of an official motion from the National Assembly to refer the electoral reforms bills, rejected by the Senate standing committee, to the joint session of the parliament where, the government feels, it will easily get them passed.

However, even after their passage in the two houses assembled together, the real row on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and i-voting for overseas Pakistanis will not only go away but would intensify and continue to haunt the political landscape. Future elections, if held by using EVMs in the absence of an agreement with the opposition parties, future elections would be contentious even before they are held.

There are several examples in recent parliamentary history when the government and opposition had reached a consensus not only on passing ordinary laws but also constitutional amendments. All this became possible during informal discussions and before the relevant bills were laid before parliament.

The present Elections Act had been unanimously cleared by parliament, which had also been endorsed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), back in 2017 during the tenure of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government. Its passage had taken no time because an accord had been arrived at outside the legislature during consultations amongst all the parliamentary players.

Similarly, the 18th, 13th and 14th constitutional amendments had been passed unanimously after a consensus had been worked out among the two sides. The 8th amendment, which had vested in the president extraordinary discretionary powers including the authority to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the prime minister and his government, had been dispensed with in the same way.

Parliamentary observers point out that all this far-reaching legislation was done in a hassle-free manner only after the parliamentary forces showed political will and determination and talked to each other. When the communication channels are firmly shut as has been the case over the past three years, deadlocks have continued to occur, resulting in little or no worthwhile legislative work by the parliament, which has been turned into just a debating club.

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